True story. I was talking with a 10 year-old boy in my office some weeks ago and was trying to get him to focus-in on his feelings about his relationship with a friend at school. They had been having some conflict and he wasn’t handling it well—either retaliating with teasing the other boy or trying to pretend that it wasn’t bothering him. Either way, he wasn’t dealing with it well and my attempts at helping him talk about the events and work through them were being met with dodgy, avoidant answers like “I don’t know” or “maybe.” The only clue that any of what I was talking about was sinking in, was that occasionally his eyes would well up when I empathized with how hard it must be to figure these kinds of situations out. He was stuck. A nice 5th grade kid with a problem he didn’t have the skills to navigate.
Many kids are lacking in the social-emotional maturity department. When it comes to interpersonal problems, such as with peers, siblings or even adults, they haven’t yet developed the skill-set necessary to cope well. Many of these kids deal with social conflict through silliness, aggressive outbursts or avoidance—hoping the problem will somehow just go away. Obviously, interpersonal problems don’t just disappear, and even if they do, another one will be waiting just a bit down the road and the kid will be stuck in the same dilemma again.
So how do we help our kids develop the skills needed to effectively navigate their social world—a world full of changing alliances and shifting emotional tides? There are a few skills you can help your child build that will go a long way in helping them develop the maturity to handle life’s ups and downs effectively. Focus a bit on the following skill areas with your child.
Feelings. Relationships create feelings, both positive and negative, so there’s no avoiding the fact that they’re going to come up. When the brain is flooded with the chemicals of emotion (which happens a lot in childhood), the child’s ability to think rationally and make good choices becomes very limited. For these reasons, kids need to be good at understanding and dealing with strong feelings before the flood takes over.
Talk with your child about his or her feelings, especially the ones created by relationships. Help him or her develop a good emotional vocabulary with lots of words for the many emotional states they experience. Give your child the message that all feelings are okay—it’s how you express those feelings that may or may not work. And most importantly, validate your child’s feelings. Sharing feelings can be scary—especially if you’re not used to doing it—so let your child know you understand what they’re telling you. Helping your child build the skill of emotional expression will improve all of his or her relationships.
Self-assertion. Kids need to be able to stick up for themselves. By stick up, I’m not talking about arguing or fighting. I’m talking about self-assertion. Self-assertion is the middle road between avoidance and aggression. It’s the skill that allows your child to tell someone when they’ve crossed a boundary or hurt your child’s feelings. Self-assertion is the first step in learning to deal with conflict and it isn’t always easy. Kids who avoid conflict or respond to conflict with aggression or manipulation need to work on assertion.
How do we help them do this? Start by helping your child talk to others (peers, siblings, etc.) when things are happening that they don’t like. Help your child get comfortable stating his or her needs and protests—in a firm but respectful tone. Ask your child about how they’re handling problems with friends, especially when you see the conflict first-hand. And prompt them, when you can, to use good communication skills like eye contact and taking turns talking and listening, to help them communicate effectively. Helping your child develop some basic assertion skills will build their self-confidence and give them the skills to deal with conflict.
Problem-solving. Problem solving is an essential skill because it moves your child from a position of blame to taking responsibility for helping fix a difficult situation. Kids need lots of practice thinking of solutions to various problems. In fact, they need to be automatically solution-oriented. By this I mean that they need to get used to automatically going to work on coming up with ways to fix situations that aren’t going well for them. Kids who aren’t automatic problem-solvers are often over-reliant on others for coming up with solutions for them and can get stuck in cycles of blame and finger-pointing.
Help your child become a strong problem-solver by talking about situations that don’t go well and thinking about several viable solutions. Also, help your child stay out of the victim position by requiring a solution for every complaint they bring to you about a peer or sibling. Finally, help your child practice flexible thinking, in other words, not getting stuck on seeing only one way to do things. Good problem solving requires an open mind and creative, flexible thinking.
Repair. When things don’t go well—and there are times when they certainly won’t—help your child find ways to make it better. Learning how to repair is learning how to care for relationships. It promotes empathy and perspective-taking and stabilizes relationships, which makes them last longer. Repairing also increases a child’s sense of personal responsibility for choices and behaviors and so is an essential ingredient in maturity.
What does repair look like? Essentially repair means that you help your child face the music. The part of kids’ brains (the fancy word is the prefrontal cortex) that is responsible for judgment, controlling impulses and containing emotions, isn’t done developing until their mid 20’s—yes I said mid 20’s! What does this mean? Well, it means that between now and his or her mid 20’s your child is going to make a lot of mistakes. Lapses in sanity, emotional volcanoes and un-planned behaviors are a natural part of the landscape of childhood, and they are also opportunities for learning. And when these slip-ups involve others, you have the chance to help your child think of ways to make things right.
Apologizing is a good start, but beyond that you also need to help your child state his or her intention. Was she trying to hurt her friend’s feelings? Did he stop and think before he acted? Sometimes the offense is intentional—due to feelings of anger or frustration—but often it’s not. Regardless, helping your child explain what he or she was trying to communicate with their behavior helps the other person understand why your child acted the way they did. Repair is important for friendships, but it’s also important for self-esteem. This is because successful repair helps clean the slate, allowing kids to forgive-and-forget and move back to a more positive emotional state. It also helps kids develop the confidence that they can take care of the offenses they sometimes create.
Remember the 10 year-old I was working with? Well, over the course of a few meetings, we got started working on feelings, self-assertion, problem-solving and repair and I’m happy to say that he’s turning an important corner. He’s communicating better, taking more responsibility for his actions and starting to work things out with his friends—all signs of budding social-emotional maturity. I’m glad I met him when I did. Getting these skills down before he moves into the teen years will help him navigate the many social challenges ahead. If your child is struggling with social–emotional maturity, spend some time working on the skills listed above. It’s a worthwhile investment because they are skills that will benefit your child the rest of his or her life.
My very best to you and your family,
For more information on today’s topic, including suggestions and examples, see my new book Better Behavior: Helping Kids Create Change and Improve Relationships. Available in both print and eBook at: Amazon, Kindle, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo.
Information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute professional advice for any specific medical or psychological condition.